The Rebels had a goal to spare against Monaghan at the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday as dual star Briege Corkery chipped in with four massive points.
Back in March, Cork walloped Monaghan by 25 points in a one-sided Lidl National League Division 1 clash but the Farney County have improved beyond all recognition since then under the guidance of Paula Cunningham.
Despite losing six of their seven League matches, Monaghan won the Ulster title and demolished a fancied Kerry outfit in the All- Ireland quarter-final. But Cork, who will aim for a sixth successive Brendan Martin Cup success on September 25, were too tough a nut to crack.
Fitzgerald expressed relief at full-time, admitting getting back to another September showpiece was vital for this team, and for himself after stepping into Eamonn Ryan’s shoes for the 2016 campaign.
And he paid tribute to the experienced players on the Cork team as Bríd Stack and Deirdre O’Reilly held firm in defence, while Corkery produced another midfield tour de force.
Fitzgerald said: “I thought we were always in control in the second-half. We had a couple of goal chances that we didn’t take and we left them back into the game, but I always felt we were comfortable.
"There’s phenomenal spirit and the leaders like O’Reilly and Stack, just phenomenal. My job is just to steer, get them fit and make sure they’re hungry for it.”
Corkery scored three second-half points and arguably her most important stemmed a rising Monaghan tide as the pre-match underdogs rattled off four on the trot.
Monaghan found themselves 0-1 to 2-2 adrift by the 14th minute and a rout looked on the cards as Orla Finn and Ciara O’Sullivan notched the Cork goals. But Eimear McAnespie’s goal revived the Monaghan challenge and by half-time they trailed 1-2 to 2-4.
Cork, now playing into the teeth of a strong wind, had their lead back out to eight points midway through the second-half but Monaghan’s revival cut the margin back to three points. Even when Lianne Ward was sin-binned with 12 minutes remaining, Monaghan outscored Cork by 0-4 to 0-2 with the corner-back in the bin .
But Cork have banked so much experience down through the years and Fitzgerald said: “Getting there was a big thing for this team and more so with it being my first year and that.
“We’ve won whatever’s been put in front of us and now we have one more hurdle. We’ll go away now and prepare for that as diligently as we can and rock up to Croke Park hopefully with a great attitude.” Cunningham confirmed she wishes to remain at the helm next year and oversee the next phase of Monaghan’s revival.
Surely there will be no dissenting voices at county board level but on a day when Monaghan registered 14 wides, seven in each half, Cunningham believes this was opportunity lost. She said: “I’m devastated, they’re a super bunch of girls. I’m just gutted because they put in so much work and deserve so much more.
"But I have a smile on my face because Monaghan football is back, we’re not far away. I hope these players stick together and work as hard next year, you’d never know what could happen.”
Cork’s victory sets them up for a third successive All-Ireland final against Dublin, who they’ve beaten in the last two deciders.
O Finn 1-3 (0-3f), B Corkery 0-4, C O’Sullivan 1-0, V Foley, A Walsh & E Scally 0-1 each.
E McAnespie 1-0, R Courtney 0-3, E McCarron & C Courtney (2f) 0-2 each, L McEnaney, C McAnespie & C Mohan 0-1 each.
M O’Brien; M Ambrose, B Stack, R Phelan; V Foley, D O’Reilly, S Kelly; R Buckley, B Corkery; A Walsh, C O’Sullivan, O Farmer; L Coppinger, D O’Sullivan, O Finn.
H Looney for Farmer (h.t.), R Ní Bhuachalla for Coppinger (h.t.), E Scally for D O’Sullivan (53), J O’Shea for Looney (57).
C McKenna; R McKenna, J Fitzpatrick, L Ward; A McAnespie, S Courtney, G McNally; C Courtney, E McAnespie; L McEnaney, E McCarron, T Scott; C McAnespie, C Mohan, R Courtney.
L Jones for Scott (45), M Atkinson for Mohan (56).
G Carmody (Mayo).